by Barbara Pierce and Daniel B. Frye
At the 1982 or 1983 Washington Seminar an invitation was issued to those interested in establishing an adult rehabilitation center for the blind in their states to have breakfast with other Federationists who shared the same dream. Barbara went to that breakfast and quickly discovered that three of those present were far more advanced in their dreaming than the rest of us. One of them, Joyce Scanlan, president of the NFB of Minnesota, even had a working name for her dream center, Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions, or BLIND Incorporated.
As you read in the May and October 2008 issues of the Braille Monitor, the NFB of Louisiana in 1985 and the NFB of Colorado in 1988 opened the doors of affiliate-guided adult rehabilitation centers in their states, and BLIND Incorporated also opened for business in Minneapolis in January of 1988. The center moved around a good deal in its early months as it outgrew its facilities: a two-bedroom apartment, a one-bedroom apartment, and for several years in a downtown office building. Then, in 1994, the BLIND Incorporated staff took possession of its present and, everyone hopes, permanent residence in the Charles S. Pillsbury mansion at 100 E. 22nd Street in Minneapolis. As you will read elsewhere in this issue, Joyce wanted to buy a mansion large enough to house all the classes and other center activities that comprise an NFB-based training program. The Pillsbury mansion had the potential to meet the center's needs. Fourteen years and several major renovations later, the facility seems ideally suited for its latest function.
The executive director of BLIND Incorporated since 2003 has been Shawn Mayo. She is a BLIND graduate and worked there in a number of capacities before taking over as director from Joyce Scanlan. There are two assistant directors. Dick Davis directs employment services as well as acting as careers instructor. Al Spooner is assistant director for marketing and outreach. He came to BLIND as a computer instructor and now works to help would-be students persuade their counselors to send them to BLIND Incorporated. Before moving on to describe the instructional program at BLIND, we should introduce two other people, Sidonia (Sid) and David Starnes. Sid is the receptionist and all-round clerical person at the center. David is a BLIND graduate and is head of building maintenance. Shawn reports that things around the mansion are working much more smoothly and are much cleaner since Dave has been on the job.
Barbara and Dan, accompanied by Barbara’s secretary, Sylvia Cooley, who acted as photographer for this story, visited the folks at BLIND the second week in December.
As they do every year, the students and staff had gone out early in the month to cut down the Christmas trees they erect and decorate in the center lunchroom (also used for announcements and roll call) and the parlor, which is now used for seminar class and meetings of the Metro Chapter of the NFB of Minnesota and other large affiliate gatherings. They had then spent a day trimming the trees and decorating the center for the holidays. By the time we arrived, the mansion was brimming over with Christmas carols and holiday spirit. The snow was missing that first morning, for which everyone apologized, as though they were responsible for this deficiency. If deficiency it was, it was redressed by late that afternoon when four or five inches of snow began falling.
At the time we arrived, fifteen students were enrolled in the comprehensive adult program, the main instructional element of the center’s effort. BLIND Incorporated is intentionally the smallest of the three NFB training centers. The core curriculum here as in the other NFB centers includes travel, home management, Braille, computers, industrial arts, daily living skills, and job readiness. (These last two courses are handled in one class. Job readiness begins when skills like banking, using shopping assistance, hiring readers, etc. have been sufficiently mastered for the students to be confident in their ability to get the task done.) Each student’s schedule is divided into eight daily class periods of fifty-five minutes. Generally students spend two class periods in travel, two more in the kitchen working on home management skills, and two down in the workshop learning to use power tools and making their wood projects, though this last class is not usually taught every day. Computers, Braille, and life skills and job readiness are taught in single class periods. Schedules for all students are reworked every week. This enables the staff to increase instructional time where necessary and rebalance instructional time as a student completes the requirements in one course or another. Twice a week the group gathers for seminar, which is usually led by the executive director, but every student also takes a turn leading the discussion of an issue in the blindness field or something connected with adjustment to blindness. As we have at each of the centers, Dan and Barbara led seminar discussion one afternoon during our visit.
While we were at the center, Harrison, who actually graduated before the Christmas break, completed his final travel requirement. He had already successfully done his three drop-offs. The first two of these used the bus. Students have to get themselves back to the center by bus after being dropped off in an unidentified location. The second test of skills is identical to the first, except that the drop-off point is farther away. For the third drop-off the student must get himself or herself back to the center on foot by asking only one question of passers-by.
For this final walk of 5.6 miles, Harrison had been allowed to study a set of directions in Braille. He made notes that he could take with him on the hike, and off he went mid-morning. By the time he returned victoriously to ring the freedom bell in the central hall and announce to everyone that he had completed his final travel requirement, the snow was falling and so was the temperature. We were in seminar when he arrived, but, as soon as we heard the bell joyously ringing, everything stopped as we all rushed out to congratulate him before he went off for a much-needed lunch and a chance to warm up.
The student apartments are over a mile from the center. Though it is possible to walk back and forth, students usually sharpen their bus skills morning and evening, during the winter at least, by catching the bus. The seven two-bedroom student apartments are part of a large complex that has nothing to do with the center program.
Zach Ellingson is the primary travel instructor. Emily Warton, who is the center’s Webmaster and network administrator, is also an itinerant teacher. When necessary, she can and does teach travel. But Zach, who is himself a BLIND graduate, does most of the teaching. Another instructor joined the staff in January. Zach has some residual vision, though he is completely comfortable using sleepshades. For several years the Metro Chapter sponsored its own Great Race, in which pairs of blind travelers competed to see who could follow a complex route around the city and get to the finish line first. Zach and his partner won the race the first year. Some people grumbled that Zach had had unfair use of his remaining vision. So the following year Zach entered the race wearing sleepshades. He still won; that was the end of the grumbling.
While we were at the center, the other bell-ringing event we experienced celebrated Maurice's hosting of his meal for six. This is the first of the final projects in home management class. Maurice set the table with a cloth and matching napkins. As a first course he prepared a tossed salad with walnuts and orange pieces that he served with a homemade vinaigrette dressing. He then served smothered chicken, basmati rice, a colorful steamed vegetable medley, and freshly made biscuits and butter. For dessert he had made a red velvet chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting. His five lucky guests were very full and contented indeed when they followed him out to the desk to ring the freedom bell. The Friday after our departure Juliette, one of Maurice’s guests, prepared her large meal, which served everyone in the building that day. From the fragrance of the baking banana bread and the description of the Jamaican curried chicken and ice cream cake being prepared, that meal was undoubtedly equally memorable.
The central photo is of Maurice Crittendon ringing the freedom bell. Surrounding this picture are several other photos: Maurice preparing the luncheon beverage, the guests seated at the well-appointed table with salads and filled glasses in place, Maurice serving the cake, and a close-up shot of a slice of cake. Maurice Crittendon rang the freedom bell after he served his luncheon for six.
Students come with varying amounts of skill and experience in the kitchen. Some were whipping up wild rice soup and chili for the crowd, while others were mastering the art of defrosting food safely. Everyone was learning to use the Internet to do research for recipe ideas. Becky Bergmann is the home management instructor. She is obviously a dedicated teacher and unflappable in the kitchen.
Jeff Thompson holds court in the woodshop on the first floor, beside the original family room, where the seniors meet once a week. All students begin industrial arts by making a small project, which teaches them to measure accurately, drill holes, use the various saws, sand, and glue. This project is often a gumball or candy dispenser. When they have mastered the skills necessary to complete this introductory project, they decide on a final, more ambitious project. One student made a roll-top chest. She has not yet taken it home, so it is still in the building to inspire the students who follow her. Maurice was making a humidor for his cigars. CJ was making an oak chest. Many students choose exotic woods that add visual and tactile character to the final product. We watched Jeff work with a student who was about to make his first cut with a saw. He was infinitely careful about teaching safety and guiding the student so that he would be successful. We both agreed that we wish someone had taken us in hand so that we too could create projects like these with confidence and pride.
Melody Wartenbee is a calm and patient Braille teacher. In the class we observed CJ was reading a book that he was clearly enjoying. Melody was working with Matthias, who was learning the early abbreviations in contracted Braille. She interrupted her work with Matthias periodically to check that CJ was following the plot of his book. Both students were challenged by their activity but cheerful and focused. In another class two students were working on their slate skills. During the seminar we led, someone asked whether or not we use the slate and stylus. Both of us responded that we had them in our briefcases. We were delighted to find BLIND Incorporated students learning this valuable skill.
Steve Decker moved quietly and competently among his students in the computer room. One was practicing keyboarding skills using a computer program. Another was working on the desktop, while a third was wearing earphones so that he could clearly hear his speech program. Steve too is calm and able to move from student to student in a busy classroom without losing his focus.
Lori Brown was working with two students on daily living skills when we slipped into her office. One was trying to untangle problems with his bank card. Dialing the phone was his first challenge. Together they discussed strategies for pressing the buttons quickly and accurately. Then she suggested that he practice dialing with the phone hung up. This student was also having trouble with the red tape surrounding his attempt to return a phone he had bought but that he did not want. His English was not equal to this task, so Lori was beside him to help when the going got difficult. Meanwhile another student was learning to wrap a gift. Having wrapped hundreds of packages in her time, Barbara sat down on the floor with the student to demonstrate some tricks and supervise the task. She was relieved when Lori pronounced his finished package acceptable.
In the afternoon we sat in on a job-readiness class in which students were wrestling with the perennial question of how to deal with blindness in the job interview. They were clearly engaged with the issue because they could see its relevance to their own situations. Dick Davis teaches this class. He has a wealth of experience and information for these students, and they seem to recognize this fact.
This month’s series of reports brings to a close our examination of the three NFB adult blindness training centers. In some ways we have been challenged to point out things that make this program unique because much of what they do is similar to the instruction at the other NFB centers. The students wear sleepshades, like those at the Louisiana Center for the Blind and the Colorado Center for the Blind. They work hard all of the time and also have fun together. While we were with them, one student was working out the details for students to attend a performance of The Messiah by George Handel. It was in St. Paul, a long way from the center, but a small group of music lovers was heading off that Thursday evening to enjoy this Christmas favorite. This student-led activity was standard operating procedure for an NFB training center, and it would be easy to overlook the impact of such an event on the students. Even those who chose not to incur the sizeable expense of the tickets and the transportation accepted as a matter of course that one of them had taken the initiative to organize the trip and work out the details. The staff did not feel obligated to go along to supervise. Blind adults who wanted to enjoy the music of the season were going off to do so. That’s life in the real world, and it is important learning in new dimensions for blind people.
Students who attend BLIND Incorporated benefit from living in the heart of a large American city. City buses are available all day, every day. Restaurants and shopping are within walking distance or in reach by a short bus ride. BLIND Incorporated graduates go home able to get where they want to go by public transportation in any weather. The students enrolled at BLIND during our visit were a true cross section of the population. Two were women in their fifties who did not want to sit at home and do nothing. Three were learning English even as they worked to master the skills of blindness. Some were getting ready for college or graduate school. Several had been blind for only a few months, and some for their entire lives. One had come all the way from Guam and was dealing with snow for the first time. Another was struggling to grasp spatial relationships in the world around him. Their abilities and experience varied, but they were all determined to get on with life on their own terms, not the lowered expectations of others. We came away, as we have from the other two centers, with a profound respect for the determination of the students we met and deep respect for the dedication and commitment of the instructors who devote their lives to this challenging, rewarding, and exhausting work.